Monia Mazigh’s debut novel, Mirrors and Mirages: a Novel, has enriched Canadian literature.
This lyrical work, exploring the lives and motivations of six Muslim women living in Canada, is a testament to the multicultural fabric that continues to influence the country’s character and global reputation.
Woven effortlessly throughout the interconnected stories are the scents, flavours, sounds, sights and emotions evoking faraway lands, as well as neighbourhoods just around the corner.
With detailed backdrops, the stories within this novel speak to deep and contemporary themes that will resonate with immigrants, their children and others who come into contact daily with people from all over the world and would appreciate this intimate glimpse into their experiences.
Though the characters all share the same faith, Islam, they are as different as can be imagined. The stories underscore what many know, but would be forgiven for forgetting — that Muslim women are as varied as any subset of women, anywhere.
Despite their diversity, they all grapple with similar issues and it is through their struggles that Mazigh explores themes of identity, religious belief and fervour, female empowerment, male presence (or lack thereof), tradition versus modernity and the never-ending search for self and belonging.
There is Emma, a single mother of Tunisian descent whose dreams of family are shattered by a husband whose singular focus on career destroys their relationship. Her faith and culture are a key backdrop, implicitly providing stability and a moral anchor.
Louise, a convert whose Quebecois mother (originally from Chicoutimi), is severely shaken by her daughter’s conversion from a life intentionally devoid of the suffocating rituals and expectations of organized religion.
“How could you dare sink into the darkness of a religion of people from the desert, people who want to invade us with their incomprehensible ideas, their backward values, their flocks of women and babies?” asks her mother, Alice, who had long ago turned her back on her Catholic upbringing, defying tradition to give birth as an unwed mother.
Lama, a university of Ottawa economics student, longs for her father. He works in glittering Dubai, a land she grew up in, but hardly misses for all its materialistic opulence and show. Her mother, Samia, though, is a typical archetype of the luxury-loving Arab woman who fills her days with socializing, shopping, and gossip.
Finally Sally, a child of Pakistani immigrants, looks for a “pure, unadulterated Islam, an Islam that would make her feel strong and superior.” Sally’s parents, Ali and Fawzia Hussein, are at a loss to explain their daughter’s sudden extremism and rejection of their simple and moderate ways, and as such, are the most sympathetic characters in the novel.
They typify the unfortunate reality of many immigrants upon arrival: rejection. Ali does not have the necessary “Canadian experience” that will add value to his engineering degree, so he must drive a taxi to support the family. Fawzia, keenly aware of potential discrimination, provides her daughter with “the finest clothing, not Pakistani garb but lovely wool, cotton or velvet dresses with ‘Peter Pan’ collars and ribbon and lace trimmings.”
They give Sally everything they can to see her succeed in Canadian society, where they themselves were shut out.
This is Mazigh’s strength, bringing us into the heads of a disparate group of women, their thoughts and feelings completely believable and authentic. It is as though we are side by side with the characters, wherever they go.
We are there in Dubai, with Emma and an opportunity to break free of the limited paths available to Arab and Muslim divorcees.
We are there with Louise as she experiments with hijab, and figures out the direction of Mecca.
We are there with Lama in the Emirates, remembering the insults of the locals who look down on foreigners, including stateless Palestinians struggling to make a living in oil-rich havens. And, equally, we recognize the hunger and desire for a country where one would be treated better.
“For Lama, immigration to Canada meant the search for a country she could call her own. She wanted to make real friends, build ties with people, and begin to feel at home. Back in the Emirates, everything, from the ostentatious wealth to the superficiality of social life, rang false. Everything, including her relationships with her friends. She felt as though people were watching her every move, scrutinizing her every step, as though she was never appreciated or liked for who she was.”
Mazigh’s deft pen also captures distinctions of class, expertly describing Samia’s multi-million dollar home, the lavish shopping and the love of luxury. We also see the modest row houses, their peeling paint and untended gardens, feeling the uncertain hope that can permeate these neglected neighbourhoods.
There is some disappointment in how one of the stories culminates, though perhaps it is an intentional nod to the constant and unfair narrative around Muslims as potential threats. The twist highlights the danger of taking online knowledge at face value, though the thread is left unresolved, unsettling the reader. Fiction mimicking reality?
Mirrors and Mirages is an important book in that it brings new Canadian and immigrant voices and experiences to mainstream readers. These voices are all around us, but are rarely captured in books, film or other artistic endeavours.
It’s about time, and hopefully, this is just the beginning.
Monia Mazigh’s novel was first released in French as Miroirs et mirages and was a Trillium Book Award finalist.
Amira Elghawaby is a contributing editor at rabble. Follow her on twitter @AmiraElghawaby